Just to hash things out a little bit, here’s a brief little non-complete list of SOME albums I consider to be classic within hip-hop, to, I assure you, not necessarily exclude any other ones:
Kool Moe Dee – Kool Moe Dee (1986)
Big Daddy Kane – Long Live the Kane (1988)
N.W.A. – Straight outta Compton (1988)
Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique (1989)
Brand Nubian – One for All (1990)
A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory (1991)
Cypress Hill – Cypress Hill (1991)
Dr. Dre – The Chronic (1992)
Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers (1993)
Beastie Boys – Ill Communication (1994)
Nas – Illmatic (1994)
The Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die (1994)
The Roots – Do You Want More ?!!!??! (1995)
Big L – Lifestyles ov da Poor & Dangerous (1995)
GZA – Liquid Swords (1995)
2pac – All Eyez on Me (1996)
The Roots – Illadelph Halflife (1996)
Nas – It Was Written (1996)
Wyclef Jean – Wyclef Jean Presents the Carnival (1997)
Common – One Day it’ll All Make Sense (1997)
Beastie Boys – Hello Nasty (1998)
Jay-Z – Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life (1998)
RZA – Bobby Digital in Stereo (1998)
Eminem – Slim Shady LP (1999)
Jay-Z – Vol. 3… The Life and Times of S. Carter (1999)
Inspectah Deck – Uncontrolled Substance (1999)
Wu-Tang Clan – The W (2000)
Beanie Sigel – The Truth (2000)
Outkast – Stankonia (2000)
Nelly – Country Grammar (2000)
Eminem – Marshall Mathers LP (2000)
Eminem – The Eminem Show (2002)
The Roots – Phrenology (2002)
Talib Kweli – Quality (2002)
Atmoshpere – Seven’s Travels (2003)
Talib Kweli – The Beautiful Struggle (2004)
Mos Def – The New Danger (2004)
Masta Killa – No Said Date (2004)
MF Doom – Mmm… Food (2004)
Kanye West – The College Dropout (2004)
Lil’ John & the East Side Boyz – Crunk Juice (2004)
The Roots – The Tipping Point (2004)
Kanye West – Late Registration (2005)
Young Jeezy – Let’s Get it: Thug Motivation 101 (2005)
Clipse – He** Hath No Fury (2006)
Ghostface Killah – Fishscale (2006)
T.I. – King (2006)
Black Milk – Tronic (2008)
The Roots – Rising down (2008)
Mos Def – The Ecstatic (2009)
DOOM – Born Like This (2009)
Clipse – ’Til the Casket Drops (2009)
Noah23 – Quicksand (2010)
Black Milk – Album of the Year (2010)
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)
Again, I realize this list is hopelessly incomplete and I apologize for whatever I forgot or just left out from ignorance.
New York is the birthplace of hip-hop and, I think nobody would deny, has granted to us more grit and memorable glory within the art form than any other city, since the early ’80s. Now, I mention The Roots, who are of course from Philadelphia, and lump them in with New York within at “East Coast Hip-Hop” genus which I guess should also include Norfolk, Virginia’s Clipse. Since releasing Rising down (2008), The Roots have landed a gig as the house band on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, hence essentially making them de facto New Yorkers.
Since The Roots have taken this post, they seem reticent at best to release any music (Talib Kweli has stopped entirely citing what he termed “culture vultures”), their only album of any quality since then coming in the safe, tepid How I Got over, a comment on their financial and cultural success of getting the TV gig. And although Rising down isn’t typically pegged by the masses as a “classic” (though it did get a pretty good rating on Pitchfork), it is the last album the band put out before getting hired by Fallon, so just by approximation, we must assign it a certain stature and allow for at least a discussion that it maintained their “hipness” and “edge” so as to contribute toward making this happen.
I personally am a huge fan of the album and no when I listen to it I don’t get all “theoretical”: like I don’t list off a dozen causes and effects of it within our culture, or anything like that. By and by, it’s a pretty standard, straight-ahead boom bap LP, save for some wicked bass synth reverb on the standout “Get Busy.” Mos Def actually graces our ears before Black Thought (The Roots’ lead vocalist), on the first song, the title track, which follows an entertaining and also disturbing opening skit full of some of the most maniacal, argumentative yelling between two people I’ve still ever heard to this day.
Rising down is bookended on both front and back by sound bites of conversations with the record label, episodes which illustrate extreme, noxious discontentment and frustration. Back in 1998 they had issued an album called Things Fall apart, but really, that title would have been much more apt for their ’08 project, which outmodes Things Fall apart in intensity, content, beats and pretty much else, and also surrounding which their lives as musicians and human beings seem to be barely hanging on by a thread. Again, this development came right before they “got over” in the form of getting the Fallon job, making the whole project all the more poignant, you might say.
But The Roots on Rising down are a group driven to the utmost sense of urgency: struggle was no longer an option. As is detailed in the closing conversation sound bite, the group has been severely underpaid, out there “busting our a**,” as Tariq Trotter (Black Thought) is heard to say at one point, and all but completely disenchanted with their lives as musicians. Their frustration with the overall music world is reiterated powerfully by “Rising up” and the chorus mantra of “Yesterday I saw a b-girl cryin’ / I went up and asked what’s wrong / She said the radio had been playing / The same song all day long”.
This distaste for the foul formulaic and empty portrayal of their art form by corporate America is exacerbated extensively by, along the same lines, much of the sentiment introduced right away in the title track. “Rising down” is a song that takes a big-picture look at the world in 2008: “I know where I’m going even if it’s dark / I’m being led down that road / You don’t see that something’s wrong / Earth spinnin’ out of control / Everything’s for sale / Even souls / Someone get God on the phone / North side ni**a South side / Sh**’s poppin’ off worldwide”.
The Roots have perceived themselves as having been thrown into the “cement mixer,” as Liars say in “The Garden Was Crowded and outside,” the corporate machine that turns their art into product, exploits them and demands financial results while not sufficiently tending to their needs as employees. This is the end of the line, for them, in a sense, as it also may be for the world itself, what with Mos Def uttering lines like “It don’t matter if the gates is latched / You ain’t safe from the danger Jack” and Black Thought giving us, et. al., “Yo I ain’t tryin’ to floss / I done lost my passion / And I ain’t tryin’ to climb / Yo I lost my traction”. Everything, right down to the emcee himself, seems completely at the end of its rope, at this point where the patriotism from the Iraq war has worn off and we’re all just left warring with each other in an orgy of smut and malice.
DOOM, if anyone, one-ups The Roots on the East Coast following Rising down, with a concept album, Born Like This, which digs its tentacles deep into rampant, pervasive themes of the apocalyptic and the grotesque. Clipse’s ‘Til the Casket Drops, though hype and charged with ghetto spirit, is pretty much a stylistic and thematic continuation of He** Hath No Fury. Also remember DOOM was originally a Briton, so it would be understandable that he’d have a special ambition toward assimilating to America, and maybe compensating for his origin being removed from hip-hop’s original homeland. Rising down, for its part, in highlighting numerous problems in America, from mistreatment of workers, to violence (“I Will Not Apologize” , to self-loathing (“I Can’t Help it”) and of course the awful staleness and shallowness of radio songs (“Rising up”), stands as the art form’s last gasp (“Get Busy” is really just classic, old-school battle rap done really well, thanks in large part to the quirky, inimitable Peedy Peedy) as a home-based dispatch that takes an unwavering look at the reality of the current musical landscape but also has its feet placed firmly in the bath of hip-hop’s genesis and classic trajectory. Now, we continually bump Biggie and 2pac as a way of reconnecting with the zeitgeist of America, and extolling those martyrs that took the confrontational tendrils of hip-hop to a subsequently unreachable extreme. But to imagine another guy or group embracing such an analytical, humanistically sound approach to rapping about the world today, while also strutting successfully in such cockiness and rhythm, seems pretty unthinkable and after this Roots album that splayed itself out and showed us gutty innards like no other. Still, please observe a couple of Midwestern classics on my above list that stand out artistically and act as a sort of lonely, me-against-the-world testament to locking yourself in your basement and just getting it done.